By Ray Ekpu
At Newswatch, we must have had close to a dozen interviews with Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu after his return from exile in Ivory Coast. We cherished every opportunity to grill the eloquent rebel, not just because he led the Biafra revolt but largely because he enjoyed a much as we did the prospect of a robust forensic combat. Ojukwu was very well informed, eloquent, argumentative, analytical, controversial and loved to give to his prosecutors, that is us, as much as he received. Every encounter with the great man was an exchange of distilled wisdom.
His antecedents excited us endlessly. His father, Sir Louis Philip Odumegwu Ojukwu, was a billionaire of the old – money variety. He wanted his son to study law. The boy refused. Rather, he studied Modern History at Oxford and returned home with a master’s degree in his pocket. His father wanted him to work for his sprawling business empire. He refused and rather joined the civil service as an Assistant District Officer. When he got bored he decided to join the Army as a recruit. His seniors in the Army tried to frustrate him apparently wondering why such a highly educated man from a well-regarded father would choose to be a soldier. He refused to take the bait.
Let’s step back a little bit. When he was at King’s College, Lagos, a school for the children of the elite runners in his days largely by British citizens something spectacular happened. The boys were unhappy about the quality of their food so they decided to go on strike. One of the senior students, Victor Ovie-Whiskey, was assigned to remain at the school gate and to let no one in or out. He was armed with a huge machete. One of the teachers, a tall, brash bully of an Englishman called Slee came around and howled at Ovie-Whiskey, commanding him to get out of the way. Ojukwu, a tiny 10-year-old, was sent by some senior students to fetch water for them. When Ojukwu saw Slee intimidating Ovie-Whiskey he dropped his bucket, jumped up and slapped this huge Englishman. Everyone was stunned. The police were called in and the matter was taken to court. Ojukwu was tried along with other students and freed.
Let’s step forward. Ojukwu waged war against his country, lost it, went into exile in Ivory Coast. Shehu Shagari in a rare moment of statesmanship forgave his trespasses and Ojukwu got accepted into the mainstream of Nigerian life again. But he was not fully forgiven because of even his own party, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), blocked him from becoming a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He was not a man to be deterred by any temporary setback. He trudged on and when Sani Abacha convoked his national conference Ojukwu was one of the respected delegates who thought that if Abacha had a bag of tricks they were ready to open it. At the conference, Ojukwu showed, once again, that he was a man of courage and conviction.
Alex Ekwueme, one of the conferees, was speaking one day at the conference when some of the delegates heckled trying to bring his speech to an abrupt end. Ekwueme was trying to figure out whether to stop or to damn the hecklers when Ojukwu got up from his seat, went up and stood behind Ekwueme like the Rock of Gibraltar. He said to Ekwueme, “Speak”. The hall was in turmoil. The veteran warrior was ready for whatever anybody was ready for.
Why am I talking about Ojukwu now when he is not anywhere around here. The reasons are four (a) at Aburi, Ghana, where a last-ditch attempt was made to save Nigeria from disintegration Ojukwu was a central figure (b) President Muhammadu Buhari talked about Ojukwu’s acceptance of Nigerian unity when he visited him in Daura some years ago (c) the idea of Biafra has gained traction again and we seem to be back all over again to 1967. (d) the negotiability or otherwise of Nigeria’s unity is on parade right now, an idea that Ojukwu had discussed in several seminal interviews in the past.
In a five-hour gruelling interview that Newswatch had with Ojukwu in September 1992. He talked extensively about what transpired at Aburi. “At Aburi I used the term that it was better for us to separate a little and survive than to keep close and burn ourselves up in the friction. This is the statement I made and everybody said Ojukwu calls for confederation. If you go through the tapes again you wouldn’t hear the word confederation coming from my lips. But it is a Nigerian fact, the basis of unity, even today, some people might say doesn’t exist. Let us talk as Nigerians. Let our leaders talk and get us an acceptable form of togetherness.”
President Muhammadu Buhari was probably truthful about his conversation with Ojukwu on Nigeria’s unity in Daura some years ago. After being pardoned for his sins, Ojukwu had no reason to go on the treasonable path again. He had accepted defeat, got back to Nigeria on Nigeria’s terms and sought to be a Nigerian senator. He attended Abacha’s constitutional conference and made his presence felt. And when he stole the heart of the beautiful Bianca Christian Onoh he made Abuja the staging post for the wedding carnival. He was making a statement that he and his wife were fully Nigerianised that is why they chose Abuja as the centre of the Marriage Carnival. It wasn’t that he was running away from a possible disruption of the marriage by an angry C. C. Onoh who was initially opposed to the union. Ojukwu still had a huge crowd of admirers who could have taken care of business if he chose to tie the knot in Enugu.
Please permit this little digression. A few years ago, a certain man, handsome and loquacious who is a politician just as his father was had said that he used to touch Bianca sometime in the distant past. Who could be touching her now? Femi Fani-Kayode, are you back there?
In spite of Ojukwu’s full reclamation of his Nigerianness, he was still a bit sceptical about the sustainability of its unity. In the interview I referred to earlier we had asked him about his book on Biafra. His reply was. “I would tell you that I want Nigeria to settle down a little bit more”. We said: “Nigeria is settled”. He said: “Nigeria is not. You know it is not.” This was in 1992. Twenty-Five years later, Nigeria looks even more unsettled than ever before. There is a shooting war in the North East. Pythons aka soldiers are dancing and devouring people in the South East. Herdsmen are harassing farmers and communities in various parts of the country. There is also a new deadly game in a town known as kidnapping. Just as it happened in 1967 people are asked to leave one part of the country for fear of being attacked. So is it deja vu all over again?
When Ojukwu was alive MASSOB was around. We asked him at one of the interviews what was his take on MASSOB. He never condemned them and never supported them but he thought they were making the right noises. His position was simply pragmatic and existentially prudent. He would have been foolish to condemn them for doing what he had done even though he got his fingers burnt in the process. He would have sounded hypocritical after accepting to be a Nigerian again if he decided to back them. So what would Ojukwu have done now? Whatever anyone may say now is only in the realm of speculation. But I believe he would have continued to insist on what he called a “better togetherness.” A better togetherness is elastic and indefinable, but it means a rejection of the status quo and a pursuit of a less jaga jaga system of running our lives.
He would not have prescribed secession again because there is no pogrom or any existing calamity that has befallen Ndigbo now. He would know that the actualization of Biafra as an independent republic is the equivalent of tilting at windmills in the light of the political and administrative structure of the South East today. He would also have thought that many Igbos would not succumb to the seductive thought of an idea that could bring another war to the Igbos who have not yet fully recovered from the last one. But he would have continued to ask for a “better togetherness”.
That is the rallying cry in various parts of the country today. That was Ojukwu’s thesis at Aburi. After the Biafra fiasco, he never stopped asking for a rearrangement of the country for optimal functionality. Nnamdi Kanu is unlikely to get the Republic of Biafra but embedded in his idealistic, unachievable and melodramatic exertions is the fact that Nigeria needs some structural refurbishment. That is what Ojukwu sought for at Aburi. That is what he fought for after the war and until he died. That is why I think Ojukwu has reincarnated.